Reflections On “The Rise Of Asian Americans,” Or, Don’t Believe Hype

By Guest Contributor Esther Wang, cross-posted from her Facebook page


Thirty years ago in June of 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit by two men who were angry and fearful about the decline of the US auto industry and the economic rise of Japan, and 20,000 Chinatown garment factory workers in New York City–almost all Chinese immigrant women–went on strike, after factory owners refused to budge over cuts in benefits and services.

These were seminal moments for Asian Americans, and galvanized a wave of organizing and activism in the US by and for working-class Asian Americans that continues to this very day.

A few months later in 1982, I was born in a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, to two Chinese immigrant parents who had come to the US as part of the Taiwanese “brain drain” that accelerated in the 1970s, after the US government loosened its nativist immigration laws in 1965 and prioritized students and other educated workers.

And just this past week, on two separate occasions, I was asked, “How long have you lived in this country?” and told, “Go back to China.”

All of this (which is to say, the personal that is political and the political that is personal) was on my mind as I read the Pew Center’s new report, “The Rise of Asian Americans.” In it, the Pew Center details the growth of Asian communities over the past forty years, focusing on the six largest Asian ethnic communities; their median incomes, educational attainment levels, and immigration status; and the social mores that Pew deemed were most relevant when trying to understand Asian communities.

Like many commentators have already written (see here and here), the report grossly simplifies a diverse and complicated community and, more destructively, feeds into the myth that Asians in the US succeed by dint of hard work and cultural values brought over from our homelands (despite Pew’s own research, buried in the last chapter of the report, that showed Asians overwhelmingly favor a larger government that provides more services).

This is not to say there weren’t some interesting nuggets in the report, or that many of their facts were incorrect–what concerns me and others are the conclusions that were drawn by the writers and researchers at Pew, and how those ideas can and unfortunately will be used by others in the service of their own political projects. What is troubling is how reports like these feed into the dominant lens of how all of us, including Asian Americans ourselves, view our communities, and understand the politics of race – and therefore how power operates – in the US.

Reading the Pew report (which I did, in its entirety) as well as the news stories that came out after its release, you would think that all Asians living in the US are extremely successful and highly educated, with well-paying jobs – “outwhiting the whites,” so to speak; overwhelmingly happy and optimistic about the future of this country; and all because we value hard work, family, our careers, and education.

The Pew Center report not only fails to explicitly address the role of US immigration policy as well as foreign policy that has driven and selectively and strategically chosen who can come to this country–educated immigrants are “welcomed” even as military bases proliferate in Asian countries–it fails to touch upon the many ways that Asian American communities are impacted by racism, economic inequality, and the contradictions of life as people of color in a country where many of us have, to a certain extent, been afforded certain privileges denied on a mass level to Black Americans, Latinos, and indigenous groups.

Much like a snapshot of a seemingly happy family on vacation glosses over the fuller picture of fights, tension, and love that occur on a daily basis, the Pew report glosses over and even fails to mention entirely some key issues, namely:

  • Entire countries of origin were pretty much left out of the report. Most Southeast Asian communities in the US, with the exception of the Vietnamese American community, were mentioned on one page titled “Other Asian Americans.” As many have noted, it is these communities–Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian–that face extreme poverty in this country, as well as a long history of US-led war and aggression in their home countries. And out of all South Asian immigrant groups, only Indian Americans were given a thorough analysis, despite growing Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, both of which tend (at least in New York City) to have extremely high rates of poverty.
  • Many Asians are the very definition of the working poor – in New York City, 20 percent of all Asians lived at or below the poverty line, and 40 percent were low-income, according to a 2008 report by the Asian American Federation of New York. AAFNY also found that half of all working-age Asians living in poverty held jobs – highlighting the extremely low-wage work that is the only option for many Asians.
  • Poverty levels for almost all Asian communities are as high as or higher than levels for the general population, compounded by language access issues and inability to access government services.
  • Structural racism is a reality for many of our communities – Southeast Asian youth around the US are targeted by the police as members of “gangs,” and after 9/11, racist attacks against South Asian communities dramatically increased, and continue to occur on a regular basis, compounded by domestic spying and surveillance by local police forces and the FBI and CIA.
  • A large portion, about 13 percent, of the Asian immigrant community is undocumented, many of them young people and low-wage workers.

And the list can go on and on. At CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, where I work on a daily basis with Chinese


immigrants living throughout New York City, I see every day how Asian families are struggling with low wages, threats of eviction, language access issues, and cuts to needed social services. Where was this detailed in the Pew report?

But–I’m not writing this to show how Asian communities have it bad (too). What’s *more* interesting to me is thinking about how the report in many ways neglects to frame our communities within a broader analysis of race, migration, and economics.

In some ways, the opening paragraph tells you all you need to know about how Pew framed the “Rise of Asian Americans:” It starts off with, “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances, and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work, and career success.”

Statistics are rarely neutral of any sort of political ideology, and the Pew report is no different. It comes as no surprise that once again, Asian communities are described in glowing terms. We have a “pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work.” We “stand out for our strong emphasis on family.” Our “educational credentials” are “striking.” What is this but a redux of the dehumanizing model minority myth?

This idea of Asians as a “model minority” first emerged in the 1960s, with several news articles that trumpeted the success of Asian Americans and attributed it to cultural values of hard work and education. Implied in the articles was a critique of the growing Black Power movement as well as many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement.

How did Asians in the US go in a few short decades from being viewed as foreigners who were taking over “American” jobs, so much so that our immigration to this country was severely curtailed, to paragons of the idea that we all can raise ourselves up by our bootstraps?

The answer lies in a broader understanding of race and immigration and the role that we have, if not unwillingly, then unwittingly, played in this country’s racial fantasies–Asians continue to be the wedge in US racial politics, a handy example to point to in times of racial unease and anxiety and say, “Look what they did, all on their own.”

As Scot Nakagawa writes:

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like AffirmativeAction, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of colorblind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.”

Reports like “The Rise of Asian Americans” do all of us a disservice. As Diana Pei Wu writes here, “The dominant media framing of the issue creates division in our own community as well as being a classic attempt to prevent us from uniting together with other groups.”

When we buy into the success story, it makes it less likely that we will speak out and organize against economic inequality; against policies like Secure Communities, SB1070, and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country; against racist policing that, if one were to only read the mainstream news coverage, only impacts Black and Latino communities, but often times targets Asians as well. When we allow ourselves to be used in the immigration debate–one of the defining issues of our time–as the example of how immigrants “should” be getting ahead in this country, it not only erases the fact that so many of us are undocumented, it makes it less likely that we will join forces in calling for the fundamental change in immigration policy that would move our country further along the arc of justice.

It is a danger to oversimplify entire communities. It is dangerous to allow ourselves and our communities to be held up as the example of what people of color can and should be doing. And it is even more dangerous for us to believe the hype written about us, as so many of us do.

The question that Pew doesn’t address, and that I believe is the most important one facing us, is–what future will we define for ourselves? Will we forget Vincent Chin, forget the garment workers strike, forget the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the struggle over the I-Hotel, forget how quickly we can go from model citizens to forever foreigners, forget our long history of organizing for social justice?

Do we want our communities to be used as pawns, pointed to whenever those in power want to gut our social safety net, or do we want to assert ourselves and demand to speak for ourselves? Will we continue to let racial divisions keep us from working with others in solidarity, or will we build bridges and alliances with black, Latino, queer, Native, and poor white communities?

As immigration from Latin American and Asian countries continues to change the face of this country, as nativism continues its rise, and as the sun of the American empire continues its slow and violent descent, will we join with others in protest against economic equality and restrictive and dehumanizing immigration laws, or will we remain silent when we go to war abroad yet again? Will we do the hard work of organizing and building the power of our communities, or will we drink the kool-aid?

These are the key questions that weren’t addressed in the Pew report, and the ones that we all need to be asking ourselves as we enter with our eyes open into the 21st century.

Esther Wang is a writer and organizer based in New York City, where she is the Project Director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union and leads campaigns focusing on housing, gentrification, and land use in Asian immigrant neighborhoods. Prior to CAAAV, Esther worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights doing media and communications work, and has also worked as a public school teacher in New York City. Esther can be reached by email at, and you can (sometimes) find her on twitter @gnawe.

(h/t Alison Roh Park)

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  • Anonymous

    Poverty levels for almost all Asian communities are as high as or higher than levels for the general population

    This is a peculiar sentence. The pew study says the US poverty rate is 13%. For Asians, 12%.

    How do we square the data with the assertion? I guess if there are a whole lot of small population Asian subgroups with high poverty rates, Asians as a whole may have a lower rate, while most “Asian communities” simultaneously have a higher one.

    Anyway, Pew says that 3 of the 6 subgroups have a lower poverty rate than the general population. So I don’t see how poverty levels for almost all Asian communities can be as high as or higher than the general population level.

    • David Miller

      The author is merely asserting that the poor in Asian communities are more poor than the general population – and more disfranchised, and not that poverty rates, the number of poor per a set number of people in a population, is higher.

  • Anonymous

    Poverty levels for almost all Asian communities are as high as or higher than levels for the general population

    This is a peculiar sentence. The pew study says the US poverty rate is 13%. For Asians, 12%.

    How do we square the data with the assertion? I guess if there are a whole lot of small population Asian subgroups with high poverty rates, Asians as a whole may have a lower rate, while most “Asian communities” simultaneously have a higher one.

    Anyway, Pew says that 3 of the 6 subgroups have a lower poverty rate than the general population. So I don’t see how poverty levels for almost all Asian communities can be as high as or higher than the general population level.

  • DJ Peaches

    Racial triangulation! This article is great…and the Pew Center report is certainly troubling